With an Autistic Toddler, What IS Normal Anyway?

By turning 2, Graham has firmly completed his transition into toddler-hood. We’re finding ourselves firmly ensconced in a new set of challenges.

Many of Graham’s most difficult problems and behaviors have subsided since he started therapy a few months ago. We no longer have a child who is just a big ball of frustration ready to blow at any moment. But now we find ourselves in a strange situation.

There are lots of times I can’t tell what is autism and what is just the bizarre logic of toddlers.

This means I don’t know whether to respond with our ABA-methods from therapy or whether to go with more typical disciplining techniques.

He does lots of typical toddler things. He cries when he falls down even if he’s not hurt. He cries when he doesn’t get his way, until you quit paying attention to him. He is attached to certain toys and animals he likes to take places with him. Sometimes he decides he wants to sit in a muddy puddle or refuses to sit in his car seat.

But he still has a vocabulary I estimate to be about a year behind schedule. He has some basic nouns. But no verbs, no adjectives. The only number he knows is 2. (Because he has 2 shoes, as he likes to point out constantly.) He can tell us a thing, but much of the time he will say “train” or “truck” instead of the things name, even if it’s a word he knows.

When he is upset, he gives up words almost completely. He isn’t much for listening, either.

He is a big fan of the word “no.” He hasn’t figured out that he often means “yes.”

He understands much of what we say, but I’m not sure how much besides the basics.

He lacks any understanding of time or consequences. So “Eat your dinner and then we’ll go outside” means nothing to him except “You can’t go outside.”

Tone of voice means virtually nothing to him. I can’t see any difference in his response whether I’m perky, tired or demanding.

We need toddler discipline, but we’re still working with a non-toddler brain in a lot of ways.

Discipline also requires energy, which I have in short supply these days. Over the weekend I valiantly tried to stick to my guns and insist that the Bug eat 2 more bites of his dinner. I used every reinforcement technique I know. And I didn’t let up, since we’re very big on following through in therapy right now. Didn’t work. Same with the piece of pasta he threw on the floor which I asked him to clean up.

Eventually I had to cave and take him to bed.

We have an IFSP meeting this week, so I plan to talk to all his providers and folks and see what their input is.

When he’s doing well, he’ll follow commands and respond very well. So I can’t complain too much.

But despite his setbacks, this kid KNOWS when it’s the weekend and he’s not getting any therapy and it’s just going to be me and he can do whatever the heck he wants. He knows.

As much as I love his random spells where he throws himself on the floor and refuses to move, I don’t really want to be dragging him up when I’m massively pregnant. (Perhaps I should just skip all errands in my 3rd trimester like I’m skipping all cooking in my 1st??)

I don’t know if I should be happy with all our progress and glad we have very few of the crazy autism tantrums anymore. I don’t know if I should be towing a harder line with discipline, and if so, what that line should be.

Unfortunately for both of us, I always end up having to do more than one errand at a time on the weekend, so he gets cranky and I get cranky and it’s not much fun. It’s easier to handle him, of course, if I don’t put high demands on him. But life must go on. Stuff must get done. Food must be purchased. And sometimes I just have to get us out of the house because I just have to.

I have a sneaking suspicion that all I can do right now is keep carrying on. Kind of like when I was talking to my friend Laura yesterday about the sleep habits of her 2-month-old. Yup… just have to push through until they’re old enough to not be a huge hassle.

I guess that would be my set of major goals for our IFSP: trying to increase our communication so we can work through more complex actions than just picking out what to eat, asking him to come here, telling him to hold my hand. I love that we can do those things. But there’s always more, isn’t there?

This kind of takes me back to one thing I’ve struggled with a lot with the Bug.

I don’t really know what normal is.

When people tell me a behavior he exhibits is normal, I find myself finding ways it’s not. I guess some of this is the autism-parent martyr’s complex. Sometimes I just want people to say, “Yes, it is so much harder for you.” And when they say, “Oh, that’s normal,” I hear “Your job is actually pretty easy.” I know that’s not what they’re saying. But yeah. I haven’t quite figured out this normal/abnormal thing.

And on a happier note, here is one of the “normal” things Graham has started doing: Pretend play!! This is actually a massive milestone for him, the absence of it is one of the classic signs of autism. I’m really excited about it, even if most of it consists of feeding his animals. I’ll take it.


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  1. says

    We have always disciplined K just as we would any other kid. There are times we know it’s the autism, but she’s still a kid and still does typical kid behavior that can’t be ignored. They are smart kids who still have to learn what is acceptable and what is not. Clearly as far as he’s come he is a smart kid, so don’t be afraid to take a hard line. ; )
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    • says

      That’s really what I’d like to do. But at this point, I feel like normal 2-year-old stuff is beyond his capacity to understand. And you don’t really do much disciplining with a 1-year-old. I’m just not sure what level of proficiency he needs to have and how I should adjust.

  2. JoLee says

    It sounds like Graham is really doing well, and it doesn’t sound to me like he’s a whole year behind on his expressive language, maybe 6 months, maybe less. When B had his 2 year appointment we were told he should at the very least be saying 10-20 words and a couple phrases. That is not a lot of words. I’m cheering for him over here. He has made a lot of progress.

  3. says

    This is how we feel a lot. Both our boys are autistic, so we don’t know what “normal” is. I’ve learned to pick my battles. I’ve also learned that what works for one, doesn’t work for another. My oldest needs to mostly learn by natural consequences when we can allow it to happen. No matter how many times we tell him a toy will break if he bends it that way, he has to see it for himself, and then we make him throw the toy away once it’s broken (as an example). My younger one responds fairly well to time outs as well as natural consequences.

    If Bug is visual, and I know this is time consuming, but what about a piece of cardboard with velcro pieces that you can stick pictures on to show him things like dinner then play outside? Maybe also talk to his therapists about simple picture social stories that he could flip through for running errands if y’all think that might help.

    I’m just tossing ideas out there. I know everyone and every family is different and you have to do what works for you. Hopefully at the meeting there will be some concrete ideas given to help you.
    Amanda @ Confessions From HouseholdSix recently posted..Military Spouse Isolation

    • says

      Actually we’ve been doing some brainstorming lately and we have decided that a schedule board of sorts may be a good idea. Hopefully it’ll reinforce his understanding of now/later.

      And yes, our IFSP was awesome. Luckily I’d had a chance to meet with his ABA worker and his Early Intervention worker the week before and I felt very up to date and aware of the situation. I think it was a really fruitful meeting. I love that we have such great people working with us.

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